Dairy Spotlight: Wei Liao
Professor and director of the Michigan State University Anaerobic Digestion Research and Education Center.
I was born and grew up in Xinjiang province located in Northwest China. I lived in an urban area during my entire childhood and had no ideas about animal agriculture whatsoever except occasionally visiting ranches in the Tian Shan Mountain region to see cattle and ride horses. I got my B.S degree in fermentation engineering from Jiangnan University near Shanghai and then worked as a brewing engineer for several years before moving to the US to pursue my Ph.D. in biosystems and agricultural engineering. I was still doing fermentation research, though the feedstock was changed from malt and rice to animal manure.
My Ph.D. study was about the value-added utilization of dairy manure, mainly focusing on biologically converting the carbohydrates in manure to fatty acids. I started to gain knowledge of dairy operations. I learned that dairy manure contains approximately 45% of the gross carbon in forage feeds that cows consume, representing the largest carbon sink on a dairy farm, even higher than milk. It was at this time that I decided to focus my career on research and development of organic residue and waste utilization.
In the past 15 years of my career at Michigan State University, I established an integrated research program that brings ecology, microbiology, engineering and economics together to develop novel farm-based biorefining solutions for organic waste management, including dairy manure. Current research projects include farm-based renewable electric vehicle charging solutions for a climate-smart US dairy industry, integrated farm-based biorefining, solar-bio-based solutions to convert liquid organic waste sources into energy and clean water, and a one-carbon platform of food, fuel and chemical production. I am also extensively involved in international research and education activities on renewable energy and environmental sustainability, with research in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe.